HBO’s “The Pacific” Takes You to Hell and Back
Sixty-nine years ago Sidney Phillips was a Mobile, Alabama teenager who could not imagine he would spend his next birthday on the tiny Pacific Ocean island of Guadalcanal, trying to kill Japs who were trying to kill him. Then Pearl Harbor happened.
One day later, on December 8, 1941, the young man found himself standing in a U.S. Navy enlistment line when another military recruiter asked, “Did he want to get eye-to-eye with some Japs?” Hell, yes, everyone wanted to get eyeball-to-eyeball with Japs. Sidney Phillips enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He is profiled in HBO’s new miniseries “The Pacific,” which was co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
Hanks and Spielberg have been extraordinarily prolific World War II story tellers. Hanks starred as Capt. John Miller and Spielberg produced “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998, described then by some critics as the best World War II movie ever made. Hanks as Miller leads Americans behind enemy lines to rescue a private whose brothers all died in World War II.
“Band of Brothers” Continued Collaboration
Three years after “Saving Private Ryan,” Hanks and Spielberg co-produced HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” the story of American GIs in Europe. Now, again with co-producer Gary Goetzman, Hanks and Spielberg are back with “The Pacific,” a 10-hour miniseries that premieres at 9:00pm Sunday, March 14 and then weekly for nine more weeks.
HBO arranged an Atlanta special invitation showing of “The Pacific” first hour recently at The Carter Center. Most in the room were current and former United States Marines. Some who once served are very old men now. They wore Marine Corps dress blues and they sat tall and straight in their wheelchairs. Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Sid Phillips is 85 years old. He still stands ramrod straight and moves briskly. His handshake is strong and there’s a twinkle in the old Marine’s eyes. “This is pretty heady stuff for a private,” he said. “The Pacific” is his story and the story of every Marine who served in the Pacific campaign.
The 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal eight months after Phillips enlisted. Here is some of what Sid said during interviews conducted for HBO. “You joined the Marine Corps to fight. You were macho and gung-ho. I turned 18 when we were on Guadalcanal. We’d been there about a month. I remember specifically thinking, this is my birthday. I walked over. I sat down and I had a five-minute meditation that I’m 18 now and I’m growing up.”
“We’d Just Pray and Hold On”
The 1st Marine Division remained on Guadalcanal from August 7, 1942 through December 22. This was their first experience with absolute hell. More than 7,000 Marines and some 30,000 Japanese soldiers died.
Sid Phillips again: “The Japanese would come in there and turn on their searchlights and bombard us for hours. We’d just pray and hold on. There wasn’t anything else you could do. I don’t think anybody that lived through that would ever forget it. That was really frightful. It was just unbelievable.”
HBO does not disclose the cost of miniseries projects. Published reports speculate each hour of “The Pacific” cost north of $20 million, or $200 million plus. Most of 262 shooting days were in Australia with 138 main character actors and some 26,000 total cast members.
The series weaves together the real world lives of four United States Marines. Phillips and his Mobile, Alabama buddy Eugene Sledge survived the war, as did Robert Leckie. Leckie became a prominent military historian. All three wrote books about the campaign. HBO’s “The Pacific” is extensively based on books by Sledge and Leckie along with interviews.
The fourth Marine is John Basilone of Buffalo, New York.
Basilone is a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for valor on Guadalcanal. He returned stateside and was feted as a national hero. Celebrity unsettled Basilone who requested reassignment to the Pacific. Basilone died on Iwo Jima. He became the only U.S. Marine recipient of both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross in World War II.
“I’ve had a Wonderful Life. I Really Have”
Phillips’ campaign ended in summer 1944 after he participated in the Cape Gloucester invasion on New Britain. Phillips rotated to the United States for naval officer training. When the war ended in spring 1945 Phillips went home to Mobile, Alabama where he married Mary Houston. They had three children, twelve grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Sid Phillips: “When you first arrived home it was just impossible to speak without cursing. We’d been doing it for so long. You did not want to talk about the war to your family, to other civilians, no. To another veteran, like to Eugene (Sledge) when Eugene came home, we would talk freely about it for hours at night. It would be therapeutic to both of us.”
Phillips attended local college and then medical school at the University of Alabama. It was on Guadalcanal that Phillips decided that if he survived hell, he would devote his life to medicine.
“I think the war changed me quite a bit, maybe for the better. It disciplined us. We were humbled by it. For the rest of your life, you appreciate a glass of clean water. You appreciate clean shaves. You appreciate good food.” He reflects easily now on 85 years. “It’s kind of like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine. I’ve had a wonderful life. I really have.”
Dr. Sidney Phillips, www.marinesidphillips.com
Dr. Sidney Phillips discusses Guadalcanal on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2EqQjIKn28
HBO Series / “The Pacific”, www.hbo.com/the-pacific
HBO Series / “Band of Brothers”, www.hbo.com/band-of-brothers
PBS Series / “The War”, www.pbs.org/thewar
United States Marine Corps, www.marines.mil
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